Seeing Islam in the Violence

February 22, 2009
In the Washington Post this morning there were two stories which caught my eye. Both of them, unfortunately, related to murder. The first related to the efforts of Muslim organizations in the United States to speak out against domestic violence in the United States. These efforts were spurred, in part, as a response to the beheading of Aasiya Zubair Hassan in Orchard Park, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. Hassan's husband, Muzzammil, has been charged in the murder.
The second story I noticed was about the arrest of an 11 year-old boy in Wampun, Pennsylvania. Authorities there say that the child had been charged, as an adult, in the murder of his father's 26 year-old girlfriend, who was eight months pregnant. The 11 year-old who was charged with the murder is believed to have shot the woman with a "youth model 20-guage shotgun." The gun, which apparently belonged to the boy, "is designed for children, and such weapons do not have to be registered."
I'm writing because I was particularly struck by the crude and hate-ridden tone of many of the reader comments which followed the story relating to Hassan's murder. In fact, the story wasn't even about the murder, which occurred last week, but rather about positive actions undertaken by a Muslim organization in response to the crime. Nevertheless, the focus of most of the reader comments in response to this story was a (rather one-sided) debate on the extent to which this crime reflects the "depravity" of Islam and Muslims more generally. Some of the language used was reminiscent of Nazi discourses about Jews and other communities in the 1930s.
Why is it that when horrible acts are undertaken within Muslim communities or in the name of someone's interpretation of Islam, these acts are interpreted by others as representing the "essence" or "nature" of Islam, but crimes committed by others are not likewise held to be representative of society more generally? People may look to the murder and see it as representative of problems relating to gun control, violence, or other social problem, but I reckon that the number of Americans who would view the Wampum murder primarily in civilizational terms--i.e., as a crime which provided us with a sort of "proof" than American society is degenerate, depraved, or "medeival"--would be rather low (and rightly so).
Think of the discourses surrounding the two largest "clashes of civilization"-type crises which have involved the United States since the end of the Cold War: the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, and the response of the United States to the September 11 attacks. In the 1990s, Christians in various parts of the former Yugoslavia murdered tens of thousands of Muslims, and often these crimes were committed in the name of Christianity, of "saving" Europe from Islam. Did anyone in the United States or Europe accept these claims at face value? Did anyone view the Serbs and Croatians who were murdering Muslims in the former Yugoslavia as legitimate representatives of Christianity, or of Christians more generally? Of course not. Instead, the conflict tended to be viewed outside the region in terms of "nationalism," not religion.
Ratko Mladic and friends fought in the name of Christianity
After the attacks of September 11, on the other hand, "Islam" was seen as the problem. So, when Muslims were being murdered in the former Yugoslavia, their murderers were simply understood to be a bunch of Balkan crazies infused with the mystical narcotic of "nationalism." However, when Muslim terrorists attack in the United States, London, or Spain, they are seen to be symbolic of "Islam" more generally, or at the very least such acts are understood to be representative of an inherent violence within Islam. This violence is generally not perceived as having a counterpart within Christianity even when Christians are butchering thousands--or, in the case of Germany seventy years ago, millions--of non-Christians.
Without question, horrific crimes such as the two I saw reported in the Washington Post this morning need to be condemned, and guilty parties must be punished. But Americans need to take a little time to think more carefully about the double-standards we sometimes employ when looking at cases like these. Murders can definitely occur within a cultural context, but this doesn't mean that the crime should represent the culture.